ONEleksandar Hemon’s new novel is enormous. Not because it’s unreasonably long – it’s not – but because it contains almost as much as its title promises: journeys that take years and lives that span continents; falling empires and great cities; so many wars that they blur and merge in the characters’ memories; indelible loves, unbearable losses; dreams and songs and megalomaniacal delusions; witty allusions, rude jokes. On the other hand, lyrical and sardonic, it is as emotionally convincing as it is clever. I’ll be surprised if I enjoy a novel more this year.
It begins in Sarajevo. Hemon, a Bosnian who now lives in the United States, has written in several genres about the 1990s siege of the city. However, this book takes us back to 1914, when it was the setting for the assassination that triggered the First World War. Our witness is Rafael Pinto: Sephardic-Jewish, Vienna-educated, pharmacist, homosexual, opium user. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife drive into town, Pinto is in his shop kissing an Austrian with a moustache. captain. It’s a bold move, but this is Sarajevo, a polyglot, multi-religious city, and unorthodox conjunctions are worth daring. Until “The Holy One”—the being who “repeatedly creates worlds and destroys them”—puts an end to the world Pinto grew up in and sends him on foot all the way across the Eurasian landmass, eventually bringing him, 35 years later to Shanghai and to a plangent love death.
In the last paragraph I used two German words. No excuse: Hemon’s readers have to accept unfamiliar vocabulary. This wandering novel epic is tied together by recurring motifs. Anecdotes, bits of poetry and philosophical matters appear repeatedly, sometimes as simple repetitions, sometimes as ironic variations. One of those motifs is the story of Babel. This is a book about language, and its medium is a rich linguistic stew.
Hemon (like Conrad, like Nabokov) first learned English as an adult, and he is aware of the way words and concepts interact. In his text he drops tags from more languages than a reader can be expected to know – sometimes translated, sometimes not. Pinto grows up speaking Bosnian, German and Turkish as well as Spanjol (the version of Spanish his family speaks at home). As a boy, he wonders at the strangeness of a familiar thing, such as a stork with so many different names. Later, after traveling for years with a young child, he realizes that the language the two speak, a mixture of all the realms they’ve passed through, is theirs and theirs alone. Language binds; it also excludes.
The child, Rahela, is Pinto’s claim to affection, but biologically she is the daughter of the man Pinto loves—Osman, a Muslim whom he meets when both men are conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent east to fight against the russians. Halfway through their wanderings, Osman disappears as a person of flesh and blood, but remains in the story as a voice, a ghost, a narrative device, a guardian angel. This is a historical novel, but one where fact mingles with the fabulous. A shadow detaches from the person who casts it. There is a carp prophesying pogroms in fluent Hebrew. When Pinto has smoked opium, the narrative becomes muddy and phantasmagorical. Religion matters. Miracles happen. Sacred texts of many faiths resonate throughout history. The “Holy One” looms large because he is everywhere or – more terrifyingly – because he is nowhere at all.
For the most part, we’re with Pinto—sensitive, poetic, uncomplaining, even when fate relentlessly assails him. Sometimes, however, a completely different narrative voice enters. Major Moser-Etherington, or “Sparky”, is a British secret agent. Like John Buchan’s Sandy Arbuthnot, he has a knack for disappearing and then reappearing thousands of miles away in a completely different persona. The major has written many self-mythological memoirs. He is a veteran of the great game, the conflict between Russian and British imperialists for South Asia, and although the Bolsheviks have radically changed the rules of the game, he is still active. An enthusiastic hunter, he kills easily. As romantic as he is reckless, he tells yarns about 20th-century conflict in language borrowed from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Hemon’s prose, delicate and discursive when he writes from Pinto’s point of view, takes on terrific full throttle when he adopts Moser’s.
There is a third voice. Someone from our own era speaks occasionally. After Pinto has crossed mountains and deserts with little Rahela on his back and endured Cossack attacks and sandstorms, after he has survived a Sino-Japanese War and the onslaught of the Chinese Communists, even after his own end, the novel ends with an epilogue set in 2001, a week before 9/11.
A first-person narrator reveals himself. He is a writer. Perhaps he himself is Hemon. He is in Jerusalem for a literary festival. He meets people who were in Sarajevo during the siege. A frail old woman sings to him in Bosnian. She is Rachel. She tells him the story of her two fathers. And then, when we finish reading this magnificent novel, the author gets the idea to write it.
I didn’t like this ending. It’s a little pat, a little too fashionably auto-fictional. But my displeasure with it is a compliment to Hemon. The historical-fictional illusion he has created is so engrossing, so generous in the abundant pleasures it offers the reader, that it cannot but hurt to be jolted out of it.